Critical Thinking & College

Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines

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With the ever increasing cost of college education there is ever more reason to consider whether or not college is worth it. While much of this assessment can be in terms of income, there is also the academic question  of whether or not students actually benefit intellectually from college.

The 2011 study Academically Adrift showed that a significant percentage of students received little or no benefit from college, which is obviously a matter of considerable concern. Not surprisingly, there have been additional studies aimed at assessing this matter. Of special concern to me is the claim that a new study shows that students do improve in critical thinking skills. While this study can be questioned, I will attest to the fact that the weight of evidence shows that American college students are generally weak at critical thinking. This is hardly shocking given that most people are weak at critical thinking.

My university, like so many others, has engaged in a concerted effort to enhance the critical thinking skills of students. However, there are reasonable concerns regarding the methodology used in such attempts. There is also the concern as to whether or not it is even possible, in practical terms, to significantly enhance the critical thinking skills of college students over the span of the two or four (or more) degree.  While I am something of an expert at critical thinking (I mean actual critical thinking, not the stuff that sprung up so people could profit from being “critical thinking” experts), my optimism in this matter is somewhat weak. This is because I have given due consideration to the practical problem of this matter and have been teaching this subject for over two decades.

As with any form of education, it is wise to begin by considering the general qualities of human beings. For example, if humans are naturally good, then teaching virtue would be easier. In the case at hand, the question would be whether or not humans (in general) are naturally good at critical thinking.

While Aristotle famously regarded humans as rational animals, he also noted that most people are not swayed by arguments or fine ideals. Rather, they are dominated by their emotions and must be ruled by pain. While I will not comment on ruling with pain, I will note that Aristotle’s view about human rationality has been borne out by experience. To fast forward to now, experts speak of the various cognitive biases and emotional factors that impede human rationality. This matches my own experience and I am confident that it matches that of others. To misquote Lincoln, some people are irrational all the time and all the people are irrational some of the time. As such, trying to transform people into competent  critical thinkers will generally be very difficult, perhaps as hard as making people virtuous.

In addition to the biological foundation, there is also the matter of preparation. For most students, their first exposure to a substantial course or even coverage of critical thinking occurs in college. It seems unlikely that students who have gone almost two decades without proper training in critical thinking will be significantly altered by college. One obvious solution, taken from Aristotle, is to begin proper training in critical thinking at an early age.

Another matter of serious concern is the fact that students are exposed to influences that discourage critical thinking and actually provide irrational influences. One example of this is the domain of politics. Political discourse tends to be, at best rhetoric, and typically involves the use of a wide range of fallacies such as the straw man, scare tactics and ad hominems of all varieties. For those who are ill-prepared in critical thinking, exposure to these influences can have a very detrimental effect and they can be led far away from reason. I would call for politicians to cease this behavior, but they seem devoted to the tools of irrationality. There is a certain irony in politicians who exploit and encourage poor reasoning being among those lamenting the weak critical thinking skills of students and endeavoring to blame colleges for the problems they themselves have helped create.

Another example of this is the domain of entertainment. As Plato argued in the Republic,  exposure to corrupting influences can corrupt. While the usual arguments about corruption from entertainment  focus on violence and sexuality, it is also important to consider the impact of certain amusements upon the reasoning skills of students.  Television, which has long been said to “rot the brain”, certainly seems to shovel forth fare that is hardly contributing to good reasoning. While I would not suggest censorship, I would encourage students to discriminate and steer clear of shows that seem likely to have a corrosive impact on reasoning. While it might be an overstatement to claim that entertainment can corrode reason, it does seem sensible to note that much of it contributes nothing positive to a person’s mind.

A third example of this is advertising. As with politics, advertising is the domain of persuasion. While good reasoning can persuade, it is (for most people) the weakest tool of persuasion. As such, advertisers flood us with ads employing what they regard as effective tools of persuasion. These typically involve various rhetorical devices and also the use of fallacies. Sadly, the bad logic of fallacies is generally far more persuasive than good reasoning. Students are generally exposed to significant amounts of advertising (they no doubt spend more time exposed to ads than critical thinking) and it makes sense that this exposure would impact them in detrimental ways, at least if they are not already equipped to properly assess such ads with critical thinking skills.

A final example is, of course, everyday life. Students will typically be exposed to significant amounts of poor reasoning and this will have a significant influence on them. Students will also learn what the politicians and advertisers know: the tools of irrational persuasion will serve them better in our society than the tools of reason.

Given these anti-critical thinking influences, it is something of a wonder that students develop any critical thinking skills.

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  1. Mike:

    This is hardly a scientific opinion, but I believe that I have bettered my critical reasoning skills as a result of following your posts and that of others in this same website.

    The first time I ventured into this blog the blogger (whom I will not name) left me feeling like an idiot because they quickly pointed out
    my fallacies and unreasoned assumptions.

    With time, I believe that I’ve become more skillful in avoiding the most obvious fallacies and at assuring that my arguments have more basis than my deeply felt convictions, as was often formerly the case.

    It’s also a question of putting oneself in the position of the other person and imagining what their arguments might be and thus, figuring out how to counter them.

    I don’t see why any normally intelligent human being who practices it cannot learn these same skills.

    It’s a question of practice, like learning most things.

    Probably, most students just don’t care about learning critical thinking. I didn’t care about most things I studied in the university and I learned nothing which lasted longer than the final exam.

  2. David from Darlo

    Of course, there is the Critical Thinking A Level – which I have been teaching for over 10 years and which is a reasonably coherent introduction to ways of avoiding all the anti-rational influences you’ve pointed out. The CT course doesn’t get enough credit in my view

  3. David from Darlo

    Apologies – the A Level is a British qualification taken in preparation for university study

  4. “As Plato argued in the Republic, exposure to corrupting influences can corrupt.”

    He was a clever sort! 😛

  5. Great article, Prof. LaBossiere! I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments, but I wonder: why is it important to teach critical thinking?

    I know this is a very complicated question and cannot be answered simply, but one reply might appeal to some idea of self-defense. In your example about the politicians, one might argue that they are utilizing the biases of others to their own advantage. Critical thinking prepares one to avoid those manipulative practices and avoid suffering some form of loss, such as placing poorly trained individuals into office.

    Just my two-cents. I really enjoy your column and have been reading it for a couple years. Keep up the great work.

  6. David Keith Johnson

    KM Douglass properly raises the question of the utility of critical thinking, while offering one important rationale. Prof. LaBoissiere suggests that human nature as he has experienced it militates against the teaching of critical thinking. Keats probably would have agreed, lamenting as he did our situation as one in which “but to think is to be full of sorrow.” That idea relates to both aspects of this question – why and, assuming it is worthwhile, how to teach the practice. Resistance to critical thinking is analogous to the resistance to any uncomfortable sensation: it will only be borne if the alternative feels worse. So to friend Randall and to the professor, the reason for and a factor breaking down the resistance to learning critical thinking might be the discomfort that one feels living according to unquestioned values and assumptions. If you have not engaged in the internal dialectic that is critical thinking, you suspect you are being fooled by life, or by your fellow humans. The difficulty here is that to undertake critical thinking is to engage in an endless process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Comfort and certainty are not ours to savor. Professor, that is bound to be a difficult sell.

  7. hello
    I feel in a sense critical thinking is “ruling by pain”. Its easy to sit back , accept and not question anything. Apathy is a comfort zone. Selfinflicted pain in the shape of critical thinking constantly questions all and any foundations -,its extra work, and not for the faint hearted.

  8. Arnaul Malan,

    True-the road to learning is paved with pain. 🙂

  9. David Keith Johnson,

    Good points. I think that people are often protected from the consequences of poor thinking by various factors (such as society, political connections, wealth, and so on) and hence do not feel the full pain of poor thinking. For example, a CEO might engage in poor decision making, yet the employees pay the price while he gets a bonus that year.

  10. KMDouglass,

    I would say that the best practical reason to study critical thinking is that the better a person is at it, the more likely it is that they will be able to sort out what will make them happy and achieve it. We are often the victims of ourselves, charging into misery rather than running towards happiness.

  11. Mike –

    Swallerstein responds – “I believe that I’ve become more skillful in avoiding the most obvious fallacies and at assuring that my arguments have more basis than my deeply felt convictions”

    This is the response much longed-for by all college teachers who have a real “concern whether or not it is even possible, in practical terms, to significantly enhance the critical thinking skills of college students over the span of the two or four (or more) degree.”

    Mike, you say you are reluctant to accept Doug Lederman’s lone finding that there is some growth in critical thinking during a student’s college education. Certainly, that lone study admits that drop-outs who accept they are unsuited to college study and leave will necessarily up the average level of critical thinking among the remainder. So it is not very convincing. Nor is much evidence given for actual growth. Moreover,the comments by students on Lederman’s blog seem to bear out a low sense of satisfaction in college study in either its content or teaching style.

    To anyone who tries to instil critical thinking either through methodology or a dialectic these comments are sad, especially if, as you claim, life post-college is likely to condition most people’s minds through brain-rotting tools such as persuasion or entertainment.

    Having completed several years of under-graduate and post-graduate work in Alec Fisher’s pioneering critical thinking programme, and of using it in many classes and contexts, I agree that there are dispiriting difficulties. But most sprang from the student attitude that ‘you have nothing to teach me’. Far from believing that they “have gone almost two decades without proper training in critical thinking”, students are sure they had gained their college places just because they already had those skills. Many came over from their own (often earth-science) departments to clock up what they foresaw as an easy-option high grade to contribute to their final degree. Nothing really curbed their opinionated, knee-jerk contributions until they were given the Harvard University Law School entrance exam paper, which at that time required a 100% mark in critical thinking before starting any other admission procedure admission. No-one (including Alec and me) passed.

    The chance to hone reasoning skills may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s a pity so few students have Swallerstein’s humility and wish to work through the pain.

    – Arnaud Malan –
    “Selfinflicted pain in the shape of critical thinking constantly questions all and any foundations -,its extra work, and not for the faint hearted.”

    Thinking critically can start off as pain, loss, and also loneliness in no longer being one of a like-minded community. (Nietszsche might say ‘of a herd’.) But the rewards of sticking at it are lifelong, and as long as there is no aggression friendships are rarely lost. No-one can be brow-beaten into altering an opinion. And if a calm, reasoned response from a rationally motivated arguer touches a nerve, that nerve may lie in a long-standing and unexamined emotion or conditioned opinion. People willingly pay for cognitive behavioural therapy, so why not work on a previously uncriticised belief for free?

    – Mike – “the better a person is at it, the more likely it is that they will be able to sort out what will make them happy and achieve it”

    Going deeply into issues before jumping to a conclusion brings freedom in life. Freedom from the bondage of a brain-washing religious upbringing; from corruption by easy options and ideologies well to the right of Ghengis Khan or well to the left of Karl Marx; freedom from snobbery, elitism and pointless competiveness, from family and work pressures, emotional fixations and stupid or abusive wrangles.

    Critical thinking also gives freedom through the silence of independent rational reflection, weighing up as many angles a possible before sounding off. This silence is like retiring to an island, hence Wittgenstein’s statement that “The philosopher is not a citizen of any community of ideas, that is what makes him into a philosopher.” Rational reflection confers confidence, and minimises later regret at having spoken out.

    Thanks for the blog, Mike.

  12. Margaret,

    While I would certainly like to believe that students improve in their critical thinking, I am (as you say) reluctant to be convinced by one study.

    I do agree that critical thinking is very weak in the general population and this is partially attributable to the “corrupting influences” I described. But, I would love to be proven wrong. Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the folks in power have a vested interest in keeping critical thinking skills low. Ironically, some of them also need folks to have very good critical thinking skills, albeit in specific areas. This would help explain why STEM is pushed heavily in the states, while the liberal arts are often dismissed by our politicians (such as Rick Scott of Florida). I think the general idea is to push for job fillers who are good at critical thinking on the job, but lack the background to deploy those skills into areas such as politics. A colleague of mine calls this “peasant education”-he draws an analogy to the education of the peasants in Europe to change them into workers. Of course, as he notes, education tends to spread.

  13. I’ve waited for the urchins to leave and the conversation to become quiet to make a post. Given that most Americans are clueless and gun-loving fanatics, the idea that the American educational institutions can engender critical thinking is pure hokum. Put this under the category ‘After 158 years, what will they do in-tuition-ally different?’

    In the meanwhile, when it comes to cutting edge social analysis and change, Humeans are wussies. Why is that? Too many misplaced ‘is’s’?

  14. “While it might be an overstatement to claim that entertainment can corrode reason, it does seem sensible to note that much of it contributes nothing positive to a person’s mind.”

    Really? Aside from the notion that mere “entertainment” might be beneficial to someone’s mental health, what about puzzling through a “who done it?”

  15. Kevin Henderson

    Waiting in line..

    Whatever experience one has, if critical thinking is part of the experience, the experience can be much greater than an experience without it. If I hand an issue of Scientific American to my mum, she will read it and gain very little understanding (no offense mum!) and come away with little perspective on how any of that knowledge may affect her life. But if I give it to a physicists, she may make specific connections to research she does when presented with pedestrian ideas, no matter how ostensibly orthogonal to her own work. These ideas may improve her own research; if anything they may play a role in her broadened education of the physical world that will help her in other circumstances she believes will most probably arise in the future. Therefore, she is always on the hunt, recursively pursing a critical thinking life.

    The one who can bring critical thinking to an (any) experience, as opposed to none, will frequently be blessed with greater patience, less boredom, and often a lot of optimism: optimism that thinking alone will lead to something greater especially when the ‘thinking’ part is always being re-assessed.

    [College still remains a great opportunity to justify wasting time on improving critical thinking skills for most people who do not know enough to improve their own skills or possess enough self-discipline to hone them.]

  16. I will quote my mother with respect to the origin of problems associated with the teaching and learning of critical thinking skills:

    Bullshit makes the grass grow.

  17. What resources are available to help me teach elements of critical thinking to my seven year old granddaughter ?

  18. Steve Merrick

    Not *everyone* is equipped for critical thinking. Not *everyone* cares enough to indulge in critical thinking. Millions of rewarding lives have been lived by human beings without the benefit of critical thinking. I do not criticise or oppose critical thinking, but I think we should not automatically assume it is desirable to, or desired by, humanity at large.

  19. Kevin Henderson

    Most people do live without critical thinking skills. To a degree maybe they are to be envied. Most of them innocuously roam the earth during their lives without a concern for deeper understanding, sort of like being in a permanent meditative state.

  20. – Duncan –

    I did a weekend training in Sapere’s Philosophy 4 Children programme and decided that it was too risky for children under 12. To varying extents, and depending on the individual child, it seemed to undermine parents’ rights to bring up their children according to their own values, when the children were not capable of evaluating views on serious issues. In fact there have been cases of distress which came close to threats of litigation. I think asking young children to articulate their feelings and give reasons (e.g. for ‘unfair’ treatment) instead of howling and screaming is a pretty good start. That is only my opinion. Google ‘philosophy for children’ for numerous resources and suggestions.

    – Steve Merrick and Kevin Henderson –

    Yes, there probably are millions of harmless people living rewarding lives as they roam the earth. There also very many destructive fanatics who abuse and/or attack others without ever having thought through their convictions. But do any of these non-critical thinkers have a place in a college of higher education? Many people with poor physical coordination live rewarding lives, but they don’t often try for sports teams.

  21. It’ll be subsidized through a previously established state fund. At year-end the domestic US ethanol industry was capable of producing ethanol to export specifications with the fourth coming on later this quarter. In the meantime, disposal of nuclear waste has become controversial, as has the cost of electricity.

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